Our Moment to Reinvigorate and Reimagine Our Mandate

Dear Colleagues:

Welcome to a new Fall semester!  I hope you have had an opportunity to rest, reflect, and rejuvenate with your families over the course of the summer, in addition to devoting significant time to your academic work.  Thank you for the warm welcome I have received during my first two months as your Chancellor.  As I have become more familiar with the incredible quality of our faculty, I am even more eager to work with you to enhance the prominence and profile of Rutgers–New Brunswick at the state, national, and international levels. We have a lot to be proud of, remarkable strengths to build upon, and powerful stories to tell. 

The critical task before us is to transform Rutgers into an exemplar of what a public, land-grant research university can be in the 21st century. The land-grant mandate, as envisioned in the 1860s, was to provide educational opportunities to a much broader segment of American society in order to serve a growing, industrializing nation and to offer citizens a pathway toward greater socioeconomic mobility. However, today, the public does not really think of the land-grant universities as “theirs”, or as institutions that contribute to their own lives, or to the prosperity of their states. It is time to reaffirm and reimagine our responsibility as one of the great and historic land-grant institutions, and to reinvigorate and translate Justin Morrill’s noble vision for contemporary times. Rutgers, with its nationally and indeed internationally renowned faculty, is well positioned to lead. 

Our fundamental charge remains unchanged: To apply the university’s outstanding strengths in both research and pedagogy in service to the public good, whether that public be in New Jersey or the United States, and continue to provide access to those who seek to improve their lives through the pursuit of knowledge. What does this mean to each of us? How do we as a faculty fulfill this obligation?  I do not claim to have the answers, save a few thoughts. At the very least, we must always consider and communicate the impact of our work. I know that Rutgers is a place where faculty conduct field-defining research, advance human knowledge, and improve lives and the environment. I believe every academic discipline at Rutgers makes a positive impact on the people of New Jersey and beyond. I am sure that every person in New Jersey benefits in some way – probably many ways – from the work done by you, the Rutgers faculty. But it is not enough for me or you to know this. We must do more to convince the public in our state that Rutgers is, indeed, their university, a university that is every day working for them.  Let us strive together to fulfill this aspiration. I ask you to reflect on this individually, in faculty meetings, and in other venues.

The point about advancing human knowledge deserves special attention. Our research is incredibly important – the university’s life-blood, as it were. We are world-renowned in many fields and excellence is pervasive across our institution. But we are also, first and foremost, educators of the next generation of scholars, inventors, artists, curers, and professionals and change agents of all stripes.  We must constantly ensure that a Rutgers education is synonymous with academic rigor and intellectual growth. To reinvigorate the Rutgers land-grant vision, the people of New Jersey – all the people, not just those who send their children here – need to know that great and innovative research and education happens here every day and every hour. We must also make mentorship of our students an integral part of our responsibilities. Mentorship enriches the student experience and enhances student success. When faculty take on the mantle of mentorship along with their classroom duties, they become a key influence in students’ lives and a core part of the lifelong affinity students have for Rutgers. And let me be clear: We must embrace the responsibility for all student success, especially that of our student athletes, whose athletic prowess is excelled only by what can be unlocked from their minds.

Freedom is the presupposition of every true educational endeavor – we’ve known that since Plato’s time, and the people of New Jersey know it in their bones. Ensuring freedom in the academy is something on every academic administrator’s mind, as I’m sure you know. Free and open inquiry, respectful dialogue, free speech, diversity – we must uphold these as core values of Rutgers. People around the world look to us and to all American universities to see if we really are the diverse and free people we claim to be, if our scientists and historians and philosophers and economists and artists can really inquire, write, perform, and educate in freedom. Not only must we uphold our cherished freedom of inquiry and commitment to free speech, the people of New Jersey and the country must know that we uphold it.

I also ask for your help as we shape Rutgers’ broad future. Public higher education in the United States is beset with challenges: Too many state governments have frozen or even cut funding for higher education, the federal government continues to shield its support behind ever-more competitive grants, parents demand high-quality education at lower cost and students, rightfully, complain about their student loan debt. Add to this the increasing competition from outside the country for the best students and scholars, and it is clear that we have our work cut out for us.  Although I firmly believe that American research universities can not only survive but indeed thrive amidst the challenges they face, too often, I think, we have been reactive rather than proactive.  For starters, such challenges must be met with “out of the box” thinking, by taking a hard look at how we can operate more efficiently and therefore more effectively, by redoubling our efforts in fundraising, and by communicating convincingly our value proposition with the public. Please join me in this effort.

As we continually strive to deliver on our mission, we must reaffirm the importance of excellence in our work. If excellence is not enhanced, it will decline. Our academic reputation, through national and international rankings, is a reflection of the quality and impact of our work and its acceptance by our peers, by our alums who take immense pride in their alma mater, and by the families who send their loved ones to us.  So, in times like these, we must not shrink from that challenge, but instead charge enthusiastically towards it, being certain that what we offer to the academic community and the public is vital new knowledge that will change the trajectory of thought and inquiry in our fields, and impact the world. We can only achieve this with an unflinching commitment to giving our very best to all we do.

In the past two months, I have met outstanding and passionate faculty, extraordinary students, and dedicated staff members. I heard about their aspirations, about opportunities for innovation and received new ideas. I am organizing my office to take advantage of these ideas and opportunities. Provost Lily Young is eager to get back to her lab and I have launched a national search for a Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs who will serve as the university’s chief academic officer. I have also initiated a search for a Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation (VCRI), a new position in my cabinet. The VCRI will be the chief research officer for Rutgers–New Brunswick and work closely with faculty and deans to catalyze new areas of research, create conditions for innovation across disciplines, and ensure that we are well positioned to compete for emerging research and partnership opportunities. 

Friends, ours is an honorable calling at a critical time. Through scholarship and teaching, we are continuing a tradition of excellence that is foundational to the research university, an idea conceived more than two centuries ago when Wilhelm von Humboldt envisioned a Universitas litterarum to achieve the unity of teaching and research. Only your achievements, as members of a world-class faculty, will help us fulfill the great promise of the land-grant university in the 21st century. I hope you will always remember that your role has deep roots in a noble history.

I am proud and humbled to have the opportunity to serve as your Chancellor. I will do my utmost to ensure that you have the resources and support you need, and do all that I can to promote, nurture, and sustain the vibrant intellectual community that is Rutgers. I am eager to begin that by listening and learning from you. Three meetings are being organized by the Chancellor’s Office and I hope you will be able to attend one of them.

With my very best to you for the new academic year,

Deba Dutta
Chancellor, Rutgers University–New Brunswick